… who commenced the Revolution? is as difficult as that of the first inventors of a thousand good things. For example, who first discovered the principle of gravity ? Not Newton ; for Galileo, who died the year that Newton was born, had measured its force in the descent of gravid [pregnant, or burdened, heavy] bodies. Who invented the Lavoiserian chemistry ? The English say Dr. Black, by the preparatory discovery of latent heat. Who invented the steamboat ? Was it Gerbert, the Marquis of Worcester, Newcomen, Savary, Papin, Fitch, Fulton ? The fact is, that one new idea leads to another, that to a third, and so on through a course of time until some one, with whom no one of these ideas was original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention.
To Benjamin Waterhouse, March 13, 1818 (2nd letter)
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Real leaders know that many deserve the credit for any new thing.
Benjamin Waterhouse posed the question that opens this excerpt. Jefferson answered by example. The conclusion was no single person but rather by a combination of efforts. The last sentence is key. Eventually, someone would combine the work of others to produce something new. That final person might not have been a contributor to the result but an aggregator of others’ ideas.
Thus, Jefferson could not credit the revolution’s beginning to one person. It belonged to many. He credited others with the inspiration that he later wove into the Declaration of Independence.
Often, the final result is credited to the final person involved (Newton for gravity, Fulton for the steam engine, Jefferson for the Declaration), but it is the work of others that enables that single, final person to bring it all together.
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